The sharing economy is suffering from an image crisis. In the years since the term was popularised, the new economic systems to which it refers have been held up as a friendlier form of capitalism, one that empowers both workers and consumers alike by uniting the two in peer-to-peer networks. The title itself, with its attendant emphasis on equality, works to make these new systems appear benign. Indeed, recent research by Pew showed that, of those Americans who were aware of the term, 40% thought it referred primarily to altruistic endeavours. ‘Obviously the sharing economy is a misnomer, which the industry no doubt likes a lot,’ co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Dean Baker told The Atlantic. ‘It’s got nothing to do with sharing. They’re profit-making companies.’ The growing number of conflicts between sharing economy brands and governments is making this more apparent.
Much of the press surrounding the sharing economy’s leading lights over the past 18 months has focused not on stories of emancipation but of exploitation, both of their staff (although that title is one they dispute), and the communities in which they operate. As US senator Elizabeth Warren stated in a recent address: ‘For many, the gig economy is simply the next step in a losing effort to build some economic security in a world where all the benefits are floating to the top 10%.’ In July it was revealed that Deliveroo couriers’ contracts stipulated that they couldn’t go to an employment tribunal to confirm their status as an ‘employee or worker’, and if they did they would have to cover the company’s costs. Drivers for ride-sharing firm Uber have already gone to court in London to fight for the same recognition, which would enable them to benefit from attendant protections relating to things such as pay and sickness benefit. Meanwhile, from San Francisco to Berlin residents are running grassroots propaganda campaigns to highlight Airbnb's inflation of local rent prices.
What is more, city-wide bans in places such as Austin in Uber’s case, and Berlin, Hamburg and Munich in Airbnb’s, have now resulted in the major sharing-economy brands becoming self-interested political forces. These companies are increasingly exerting pressure on governments and municipalities to create the right legislative environment for their businesses to prosper. Airbnb is in the process of mobilising its hosts to advocate on its behalf through 100 action groups spread across the world. It also held a joint panel with Uber during July’s Democratic National Convention to remind politicians that there might be electoral consequences to siding against their services, which are so popular with Millennials.
This tacit lobbying doesn’t fit with the picture that sharing-economy brands like to portray of their businesses as being a conduit for empowerment. A recent report by consumer rights group Public Citizen into Uber’s effectiveness at strong-arming local government was even entitled Disrupting Democracy. In an era when more and more companies understand the importance that consumers place on Brandstanding – taking political and charitable positions unrelated to their bottom line – such activities have the potential to backfire. Indeed, the switch from a utopian to dystopian view of a future dominated by the sharing economy is being presaged by many innovators.
Earlier this summer designer Luke Sturgeon debuted his Citizen Rotation Office, a ‘fictional government service prototype’ extrapolated from existing consumer trends and behaviour. The project merged popular services such as Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Uber ‘into a new technocratic government, whereby these behaviours become mandatory’. Under this system, property is outlawed and itinerant citizens would be constantly monitored by a network of sensors to establish where they should be living and working from day to day. Meanwhile, as part of the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale, architecture firm OMA is exhibiting speculative platform PANDA in order to investigate the political and social ramifications of digital sharing services. The app is positioned as a means for sharing economy workers to build collective power to fight back against Silicon Valley. Press material describes PANDA as ‘a tactical disruption-as-a-service toolkit, empowering app workers with the means to mediate terms with the platforms and their algocrat masters’.
How long it will take for mainstream opinion to catch up with such perspectives remains to be seen. But the positive spin that brands receive from the sharing economy title may shift to accusations of hypocrisy if those who live and work under their purview don’t soon start to share in more of their successes.